A long and messy business

18 Jul|Rowley Leigh

Bowl with Crayfish, Jan Seitz, ca. 1760

Chef Rowley Leigh defends the art of slow cooking 

I’ve written a book, called A Long and Messy Business. I couldn’t think of a title, then I came across this phrase. It wasn’t really referring to the business of cooking, it was actually about eating some lobster Thai green curry. But I decided to persevere – the publisher, John Mitchinson, thought it was a great idea, so that proved it was pretty uncommercial.

I don’t agree with the whole idea that is pushed by publishers, telly and everyone else, that cooking is quick and easy. It wouldn’t be worth doing if it were. When you think about how our mothers and grandmothers used to cook, they learnt from their mothers and it took a long time. They had a narrow repertoire of things they could do very well. Hence, “a long and messy business”. It reminds me of that quotation from Chaucer, “the life so short, the craft so long to learn”.

By way of illustration, I’ll tell you about a hero of mine, who I’d like to be adopted as an Idler hero. I think he’s got most of the credentials. He worked his bollocks off for 58 years until he died of overeating. (As you know, the Idler has an intrinsic paradox: that you have to work very hard in order to be idle.) Now my man, Fernand Point, was the most famous chef in the world. A whole generation of great chefs that followed 20 years later worked under his tutelage. He spent ten years learning his craft in various hotels and restaurants in Paris and then set up shop with his dad in Vienne, which is at the top of the Rhône valley, just below Lyon. Everyone came to La Pyramide at Vienne to taste his food. Over 30 years he made it a place of pilgrimage.

He had a very strict regimen. Staff meals were served with the regularity of the railway timetable, which wouldn’t be very appropriate with the modern train system. His own personal regimen was of the most incredible rigour. Every morning, he would come down in his dressing gown, write the menu, check with the chefs and then stroll out into the courtyard, still in his dressing gown (although when I say stroll, he was about 28 stone towards the end of his days), a bottle of champagne already prepared, in an ice bucket. He was very strict about, A) the ice and B) you have to open the champagne a good ten minutes before you pour.

He would then shave, drink champagne, chat to his friends who had come to visit him and then, when he had done his ablutions, he would retire, put on a very heavy black serge suit, come back down into the dining room, and have his lunch before the customers arrived. And he’d have a modest little lunch, just a little consomme. Perhaps a few frogs legs with scrambled eggs. Followed by a couple of chickens, a little salad and then perhaps some peaches and champagne.

Then he would supervise the lunch service – he was one of the very first chefs who spent as much time in the dining room as in the kitchen. He would cruise around, making sure everyone was okay – although how he cruised round the tables is not quite certain – and he produced a great conviviality, which is sometimes missing from today’s chefs.

Most importantly, he didn’t shy away from the long and messy business that is cooking. By way of example, I’ll give you one of his recipes. This is his most famous dish, which people travelled miles for, although, of course, it is not in his cookbook. It’s a gratin of crayfish tails, and it’s quite simple to prepare.

First thing you have to do is catch a crayfish, obviously; a little river crayfish, the nice plump ones. You’re going to have to perform an act of cruelty by twisting the middle bit of their tail and pulling it out, because that contains their intestinal tract. You then prepare a little court bouillon: peel carrots, onions, lemon peel, a little vinegar, water, lots of salt and then, very briefly, dip the crayfish into that court-bouillon. Let them cool down, sole them, and then you have to beat the shit out of the carcasses. Bash those in a pestle and mortar, for some time. Then you heat a very large frying pan with a little bit of butter, and you roast those with the shells on. You then apply some decent brandy, flame them, and prepare a very fine pile of carrots and onion. You add that, together with some white wine, a little bit of tomato puree and cream. Let that simmer very gently for about 45 minutes.

Then you parse it. You might think that just means through a sieve but there’s a lovely picture in a book called, The Great Chefs of France, of how they used to parse a Sauce Nantua. They poured it into a sieve, lined with with ample muslin, and when most of the juice had come through they would bring the muslin up in a ball and squeeze it. It took two men, squeezing it over and over again; the last bit was the most precious of all.

So there we have the base sauce and, meanwhile, you’ve got the crayfish as you may remember. Sauté the crayfish tail very lightly in a bit of butter. Add some more cream, then add your crayfish sauce. The original recipe calls for three and a half tablespoons of truffle julienne, which can’t do any harm.

You should also have made a hollandaise sauce by now. And that doesn’t mean something you knock up in a blender, it means working the egg yolk and wine very hard for about ten minutes until it’s incredibly light and fluffy, and then mixing it with melted butter. Fold that into the crayfish mixture, pour it into an elegant copper dish and place under a salamander to finish. Voilà.

It was rumoured to be a very, very good dish indeed. But the reason Fernand Point should be especially commended as an Idler hero is that he said, and it’s probably true in most professions, but above all in cooking: “You are at school all your life”.

This is an extract from Rowley Leigh’s talk at the Idler Dinner in June. Our next Idler Dinner takes place on Wednesday 20th September and features poet Lavinia Greenlaw on William Morris’s travels in Iceland and prof Ronald Hutton on the history of witchcraft, plus music from The Magic Lantern. Book tickets here